Still driving for title ring Elway: The Broncos' quarterback, trying to avoid going 0-for-4 in the Super Bowl, says time has healed some of the pain from his three losses

Super Bowl Xxxii

January 22, 1998|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

SAN DIEGO -- The Denver Broncos' John Elway has won more games than any other starting quarterback in NFL history. He has 43 career game-winning or game-saving drives. He is the architect of The Drive, which put him in his first Super Bowl 11 years ago. He has thrown and completed more passes for more yards than all 18 Hall of Fame quarterbacks.

Yet Elway doesn't have The Ring.

He has three rings from three Super Bowl losses, but Elway doesn't wear those on his fingers. At age 37, he is possibly the most sad yet sympathetic figure of one of the world's most prestigious sporting events.

"It's not like I ever thought about committing suicide or anything from the previous three losses," said Elway, who will lead the underdog Broncos against the defending champion Green Bay Packers on Sunday in Super Bowl XXXII. "As time goes -- it's been a long, long time -- so the time kind of eases some of the pain.

"It was really rough when we were there three out of four years," he said. "It was right there in the back of your mind, and it was kind of tough to get rid of it. But now, having been so long ago, it has healed some of the wounds. Anytime you lose this game, it's devastating, but the bottom line is you look back, realize what a good year it was and be proud of that fact."

Elway vividly remembers each Super Bowl loss. They got worse after each appearance. In 1987, the Broncos played the New York Giants close for a half before losing, 39-20, in Super Bowl XXI. That was two weeks after The Drive, Elway's 15-play, 98-march against the Cleveland Browns that forced overtime in the AFC title game.

A year later in the Super Bowl, the Broncos got blown out by the Washington Redskins, 42-10, and then got embarrassed even more by the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIV, 55-10.

Elway didn't play badly in the first two Super Bowls, but he was atrocious in the third, completing 10 of 26 passes for 108 yards with two interceptions.

"At certain points of certain games, we just got steamrolled. We were ahead of the Giants at the half but lost it in the second half. The Redskins hit us with that great second quarter, and the 49ers dominated us before the kickoff," said Elway, smiling.

But Elway always took most of the blame. He had to. It comes with the job.

"The Super Bowl is a career-maker or career-breaker for a lot of players," said former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, now commentator with ESPN. "Look what kind of contract Desmond Howard got last year and Larry Brown before that. You have to seize the moment, and great players do it and win championships. That's the difference between a champion and other people.

"In John's case, he hasn't always had the best talent around him, but quarterbacks get the praise when they win, and they have to take the brunt of it when they lose," he said.

Elway played in those three Super Bowls with overachieving defenses that were always considered too light in weight. He had some decent receivers, but none of the former Three Amigos -- Ricky Nattiel, Vance Johnson, Mark Jackson -- is headed to Canton, Ohio, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

And what running game? Gerald Willhite and Bobby Humphrey were two of the feature backs during the Broncos' Super Bowl runs. Not exactly household names.

"John never had the complete team, the balanced offense that he has now," said Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe. "For years, he was the Denver Broncos. He carried this team to the Super Bowl during that period of mediocrity. Now we have a running game with a great back in Terrell Davis. We have one of the best offensive lines in the game and the top-ranked defense in the AFC. John is aware that this may be his last chance at winning a Super Bowl, but he also knows that it's his best."

Davis has been the best runner in the league the past two years except for Detroit's Barry Sanders. Davis rushed for 1,750 yards on 369 carries during the regular season. The Broncos also have Sharpe and offensive tackles Tony Jones and Gary Zimmerman, all of them rated some of the best at their position.

And then there is Elway.

Maybe he doesn't possess the arm strength that he used to, but he still has some velocity.

"He about broke my ribs four times this season with those bullets," said receiver Ed McCaffrey of Elway, who completed 280 of 502 passes for 3,635 yards and 27 touchdowns during the regular season.

And maybe he doesn't move around quite as well in the pocket, but when was the last time you saw Elway get caught from behind? He has compensated for his diminishing skills with enough smarts to still pull out last-minute victories.

If Sunday's game goes down to the final minutes, who are you going to pick to pull it out, Elway or Brett Favre?

"I'll take John Elway," said Sid Gillman, 86, the Hall of Fame coach and offensive innovator who helped make the quarterback position what it is today.

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